Category Archives: Blog Carnival

Unusual Dungeon #4: Crevasses

Antarctic Crevasse, Photo by Mtpaley
Antarctic Crevasse, Photo by Mtpaley

Crevasses – basically cracks in glaciers – are a type of dungeon I first encountered in the Secret of the Silver Blades, where they lead up to the evil Dreadlord’s castle. Cringeworthy as that sounds, I’ve always loved the idea of a band of adventurers exploring the bottom of crevasses – the combination of dangerous environment, bitter cold, and even unearthly beauty is quite potent. Snowy environments are also much neglected, in my opinion, so here’s the chance to kill two yetis with one chunk of ice.

The crevasses will be a fairly irregular mess. There are similarities with caves, but the passages will mostly be narrow and long. Lots of dead ends. A similar feature – ice caves – can offer larger, covered spaces.

Use: The crevasses is probably best used as an obstacle, or rather, a passage through an obstacle – the glacier. It could connect to one or more destinations. One trope is the hidden valley full of lush vegetation, warmed by magic or volcanic vents. Another the frozen castle or similar lair. Or turn it around – the crevasses are the only means of escape from the white dragon’s lair.

The crevasses also serve as a “man vs nature” subplot. Adequate equipment, food, and protection from the cold will be essential to the protagonist’s survival.

Enemies: Since the structures are of a fairly temporary nature, your adventurers won’t find much in the way of permanent settlements. Opponents will be related to cold – yetis, snow elementals, frost giants, ice mephits, you name it. Less fortunate adventurers who fell into the crevasses could now rise as frosted-over zombies, awoken by the warmth of the player characters’ campsite.

Tschingelfirn crevasses, Phot by Ambroix
Tschingelfirn crevasses, Phot by Ambroix

Unusual Dungeon #3: One Huge Tree

Samuel_Palmer_-_Old_Cedar_Tree_in_Botanic_Garden,_Chelsea_-_Google_Art_ProjectHuge trees occur throughout mythology. There’s the tree of life, and Yggdrasil, for example. There’s also the beanstalk that brought Jack into the land of the giant. In more recent history, Kaena and Ryzom come to mind. Any tree that’s big enough makes for a wonderful dungeon.

I first came across the concept in the old Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye) adventure module Durch Das Tor der Welten – Through The Gateway of the Worlds –  where (Spoiler alert!) the players are forced through the eponymous gate and end up on top of a huge tree. Their task is to get down safely.

In some ways, this sort of setting is a variation of the treetop village and, if your tree is large enough and/or features intelligent inhabitants, it might include a treetop village.

Due to the three dimensional nature of a huge tree, your dungeon map will be very different from a normal dungeon. Instead of having a floor plan, or try to map every little twig, a flow-chart like affair seems like the best approach. For each location, note what connections exist to other places. Make sure, in your description, to include what players see above and below them. How much is foliage blocking your protagonists’ sight?

Objective: The obvious goal of a giant tree is to climb to the top, or to get back to the ground. The Dark Eye adventure mentioned above used the later, but I personally feel that getting to the top is more intuitive. Obviously, you’ll need to make sure there are reasons for your heroes not to have access to flying machines, magic, or beasts. The reward at the top could be anything: A flying ship that got caught in the branches, or perhaps the tree pokes – much like Jack’s beanstalk – through a cloud and leads them to Serranian.

Climbing down would be more of a survival/escape story. Your characters start with limited resources and have to make do with what they can obtain during their descent. What brought them up in the first place depends very much on your setting. Perhaps they were jumping an air ship, or an annoyed dragon dumped them there instead of eating them.

Enemies: Anything you can imagine living in a tree. In the case of the singular huge tree, though, opponents could be a bit more faery-tale like. Flying beasts might perch on the branches. And if you are with Jack, a cloud giant could live above.

Special treasure: A seed from the tree may be very valuable to mages, alchemists, or as a curio.


Unusual Dungeon #2: Treetop Village

Treehouse_at_Milne_Bay_-_Papua_New_Guinea_-_1884-1885This is another, actually relatively common, dungeon type that still makes for a great change of pace: A treetop village. Probably the most famous example would be the Ewok village from Return of the Jedi, but they’re really all over the place, especially since many authors like to use them for Elves. The Channelwood Age from Myst is also an example of this.

But Nils, you might say, a village isn’t a dungeon! And you’d be right, for any normal village. A treetop village features the same limited movement than an underground dungeon does (provided your party can’t fly). Sure, characters could try to jump across chasms or improvise rope bridges, but that’s the sort of drama and problem solving that makes an adventure fun.

 Why go there?

I think an “intact”, that is inhabited, treetop village doesn’t work well – the inhabitants will be able to communicate easily and mount an effective defense; our intrepid adventurers would fight wave after wave of defenders. Fun, but not your usual dungeon crawl. It also means any sort of hostage rescue is out of the question – the occupants could just kill the captives at the first sign of trouble.

A better approach is probably to use an abandoned treetop village. Maybe oversized spiders or some other wildlife inhabits it now. Maybe a villain on the run is hiding in it. And maybe the locals simply left something of value behind. Druidic artifacts or some other form of nature magic probably works best, but just because these guys lived in trees does not mean they did not like gold.

Who’re we fighting?

Any sort of animal or monster capable of flying or climbing. Giant spiders, semi-sentient vampire bats, twig monsters. If it has a place in a forest and can make it up, it can be a possible monster in a treetop village dungeon.


Unusual Dungeon #1: Hedge Maze

Labyrinth_Versailles_colourOne type of unusual dungeon that actually gets used sometimes is the Hedge Maze. Hedge mazes are familiar to anybody – labyrinths grown from, well, hedges. They evolved from know gardens, a type of garden that features a very strict, symmetric, and usually square layout. A hedge maze could even have grown from such a knot garden, after generous application of black magic by an evil faery queen.

The usability as a dungeon is really well illustrated by the picture on the right, a map of a hedge maze that used to exist in the gardens of Versailles.

Due to the amount of work required, they are almost always part of a palace or so, but in a fantasy setting some madman could just set up a hedge maze for the sole purpose of confusing, capturing, or distracting his enemies. Usually, the game will be less about the maze itself, but more about something to be found at the center, or at the other end: The villain’s castle, shreds of a treasure map, statues that are hints to the location of a cache of art looted in the war.

How not to run a hedge maze dungeon

To make a hedge maze useful, you’d have to provide some sort of mechanism to prevent the characters from simply cutting through the hedges. If the maze is used to toy with the characters, this could be a mere threat (“Don’t even think about cheating, or the Mad Jester will kill the mayor’s daughter!”). The maze itself may be a monster; the hedges have sharp thorns and lash out at any attacker. If the hedge is magical, perhaps cutting a hole into one just leads to the point of origin. In a space opera context, the plants are of a strange, alien variety that draw metals from the ground and cannot be cut by the characters’ knives.

Thematically, the obstacles and opponents found in the maze should be plant-related, or park-related. If the antagonist is a faery or evil jester, add fey and joker-related creatures and traps to the list. Clues should be guarded by puzzles, traps should hinder progress – and these tropes work so much better in a hedge maze because they are set up deliberately as puzzles.

A New Year, A New World Roundup

RPGBlogCarnivalLogoSmallJanuary came and went and it’s time to close our “New Year, New World” Blog Carnival. With a slow start, we still got a number of really cool – and in some cases very long – entries. Posts were, in chronological order:

Thank you all for participating! Be sure to check out February’s carnival, over at Leicester’s Ramble, on the topic of How/Where You Write/Prep.

If you’ve got any late articles, please post below or on the original post and I’ll add you to the list. I’ll also continue building my small colonial setting over the next months.

A New World, Part 4: Mapping the Coastline

Now that I know a little about the situation of our colonists, I’d like to know what the geography is like. Usually, I make up my maps from complete stretch, but the other days I saw a map of Sumatra on the BBC News site and I decided that its eastern coast looks pretty awesome. The New World setting being a fairly small one, I thought it’d be quite okay to actually use Sumatra and modify it.

The source map I picked is one provided by Wikimedia, and is public domain. (Always respect other people’s copyrights!)

I set up an Inkscape document with dimensions of 420x594mm, that’s DIN A2 format. This will allow me to create enough detail for a medium-sized posted map, if I so wish, and I can easily halve the size to make it an A3 size for a 2-page spread in a booklet or magazine. Landscape format for the same reason. I realize that I am probably overthinking it, but then, it doesn’t hurt.

My Inkscape Setup
My Inkscape Setup

Normally, you’ll want to avoid using real geographic features as much as possible, despite it having a long tradition (the D&D pioneers based their settings off a fantasized version of the USA), because humans are insanely good at recognizing patterns and players will spot your sources. All my settings are “officially” parallel Earths, though, so at least I have a rationale for it.

Tracing the coast
Tracing the coast

As you can see I trace the coastline in many small sections; this is so I can do it zoomed in. I don’t try to match it precisely, and I am ignoring the islands off the coast for now. A little filling action later, and we have ourselves an east coast.

First Draft of East Coast
First Draft of East Coast

It looks bland at this stage, but that’s okay. Do note two things: One, I’ve marked a possible site for the colony. Two, the coast is not contiguous in the south and extends “off map”. This could be a bay, or the New World might be split by a strait. I’ll leave this up for later.

Now it’s time to add higher elevations. I add rivers first, because I find it helps to use them as a guide for mountains rather than the other way around. For the elevation colors, I am re-using the palette I used for my Northern Territory map. In the following screenshot, I’ve filled in some preliminary mountains – as you can see, each “height range” is a separate layer. In this map, they are abstract levels, but on some maps I go by numerical height bands.

Going Vertical
Going Vertical

Note that only the coastal layer has an outline (dark blue) to provide better contrast; all higher elevations have no outlines because here I find outlines to be distracting.

Looking at the map, it does seems too sterile. Let’s add some quick islands.

You gotta have islands
You gotta have islands

And there we have it, a nice, fairly dynamic coastline, some cool islands that beckon, and you almost can’t tell that it was Sumatra once. To see how it works as a hexcrawl, I added a 0.5 inches hexgrid to the map. I use an online SVG hexmap generator, open the resulting SVG file, group all elements and copy them over into a new layer.

Hexgrid Overview
Hexgrid Overview

And a zoom:


I am, if I may humbly say so, quite happy with how this turned out. Next time, I will work on the interior – and work on some local details.


A New World, Part 3: What’s the Colony Like?

Log_Cabin_BAHAccording to Wikipedia, it took the Mayflower pilgrims three weeks to build their first common house, 6×6 meters in size. They were severely hampered by disease. They assigned single men to families to reduce the number of houses that needed to be built. They completed their initial settlement another month later, with 30+ people dead (about 25%).

In the case of the lost colony, there is no major disease (our settlers have it hard enough), but a severe shortage of food and other supplies, and unrest among the refugees.  The group is also much larger, so ideal logs for building have to be brought in from further afield, or less ideal trees used. The refugee fleet was not as well prepared as the original fleet, but there are some woodworking tools on any (wooden!) sailing ship.


How many houses does the settlement need? Assume six to eight people per house, or 250-330 buildings. Some of these will be common houses, storage barns, and the like. The available land will be split into long, stretches; the house is at the front of the grant, at the roadside; the rear will presumably used for agriculture. Common houses will be clustered in the center of the colony, near the waterside. There are native tribes in the New Lands, but none survive nearby; with food and shelter an urgent matter and the settlement being fairly large, the town will not build any defensive structures.

As a side note, I realize that 2000 people is a lot. That’s basically the entire population of the Thirteen Colonies in 1625. However, with contact with the old world completely lost, 2000 people is a very, very small population – perhaps too small to survive in the long run. I also decided that I’d like to have the main colony have some semblance to a real town.


The colonists had a while to set up before the refugees arrived. The less time before winter arrives, the fewer houses will be built; this means more overcrowding and might also mean that the buildings that are built are closer together. It also leaves less time for foraging and creates a greater strain in the colony.


The colonists explored the coast for a short while, maybe a few weeks, until they found a suitable spot (they also tried to find the site of the original outpost, since some maps of that area existed and a few native settlements there were known to be friendly). Features: Defensible hill, old growth forest, a protected natural harbor, and a river. (The river for easier transportation and travel inland, and for building watermills.)


The settlement is governed by the leader of the original colony fleet, let’s use the term “Governor”. He is authorized – by the King personally – to run the colony in the King’s name. He is supported by a handful of officers and administrators, and ten men-at-arms. Another few dozen “trusted” men make up the settlement’s militia, though of course in any larger attack everybody who can hold a weapon (or a club) is expected to help in the defense. It is noteworthy that no members of the refugee group serves as guards or militiamen.


The original fleet carried some crops and some livestock – especially the later is among the most valuable property of the colony. A few cows, chicken, sheep, pigs. None of these will be used for food, as they are needed for breeding.

Both fleets also brought cats (to keep rats and mice in check) and dogs (as guard dogs). I am considering to omit horses and donkeys,; locating an animal suitable for riding or as a beast of burden could be a priority for the colony.

Tools are “colonial” property and issued as needed. Anything anybody owned privately that was deemed useful for the colony was confiscated, with promises of payment “if and when” the colony survived.

Ships: The colonists probably stripped a few ships for supplies. Some ships might be suitable for fishing. Two – with minimum crew – were sent back to the old world, they have not yet returned. Some others are used to explore the coast.


There’s no official currency. Some people barter for what little surplus there is, or use old world gold and silver coins. Most other metals are way too useful for tool-making to be used for coins. Written IOU’s are used in some cases.


The settlement needs a name. I was thinking “KIng’s Cove”; there are a real life King’s Cove in Canda and a King Cove in Alaska. I think that’s okay. The colony was named before the arrival of the refugees, so it will have a “normal” colony name, and not anything connected to its status as a refugee camp.


A New World, Part 2: Assumptions

Before I start working on maps or any such things, I like to “nail down” some of the basic assumptions of a new setting. Basically, my process is a “top-down” approach, but very iterative – I decide on the big issues first, and then bounce back and forth between detail work and large-scale work. If that makes any sense?

First, what is the setting about? Mostly survival and exploration:

  • Man vs Nature: The colonists are short on equipment, supplies, there’s no infrastructure. There used to be natives, but a Tsunami wave has destroyed coastal settlements – there are surely survivors somewhere, but they aren’t easy to reach and might be worse off than the colonists.
  • Man vs Man: Let’s face it, some people just crack when they are in a life-threatening situation. There will be those who will take what they need – or want – without any regard for others. There will be power struggles, either over practical matters or over ideology.

Second, what sort of starting situation have we?

  • The New Lands were discovered a few years ago. The original explorers built an outpost for their own use, but the colonists couldn’t find it (presumably it was destroyed) and settled nearby.
  • The colony fleet consisted of seven ships, the “refugee” fleet of nine. A rough rule-of-thumb for the number of people this gives us could be using thing the Mayflower as an example; she carried 135 people. Our settlement starts of with about 2000 colonists and refugees. This is a large number, but attrition will run fairly high (half of the Mayflower settlers did not make it through the first winter).
  • The colony fleet would include craftsmen, soldiers, trained administrators; in short every type of profession you’d need to set up a settlement that is far from the homeland. The refugee fleet just carried whoever had the random luck to make it on board.
  • Arrival was probably timed to be late winter, very early spring, so that the colony could be established well before the next winter. For dramatic purposes, I will assume that it is late summer/early autumn. This means the colonists can not get farms going. I might change this depending on research.
  • It’s a “humans only” fantasy setting with no, or very limited, magic.


Finally, one word about goals: I’d like this to be a usable mini setting by the end of the month. This probably means that I won’t be able to go into great detail. Of course, if anybody would like to use this setting, I could keep working on it after the Carnival is over.

A New World, Part 1: The New Lands

I still remember the excitement of our departure. The wind picked up. The cheers from the crowd as we set sail. Picking up speed as we passed The Pillars, the open ocean before us. We were the vanguard, the pioneers, the first fleet amongst many that would be sent to the New Lands in the west to build new settlements, new homes, and eventually, glorious cities for our King and country.

Three weeks into the voyage we observed something strange to our east. Thin pillars of flame descended from the heaven, five in a row, lasting but a moment. The men argued about the event, fearing a bad omen, but my officers convinced them that it was a sign of a safe voyage. I think none of them really believed it, but it quelled the unrest, and over the days the excitement of arrival took over.

Here, the note written by Lord Admiral Corwyn Thynne digresses into some of the plans for the initial settlement, at a site picked shortly after the original discovery of the New Lands. Later, and on a different day, he continues:

My first glance through the lense revealed utter chaos and destruction. Fallen tree and debris all over. We followed the coast but found no sign of the fort set up during the voyage of discovery. We found no native villages, and no sign of life. But everywhere was destruction. Our maps, necessarily crude to begin with, did not match the coastline. We knew we were in the right place, and verified it by the stars once more. But dramatic change had taken place, not long ago.

We landed the next day, Benedict says it looks as if the area was flooded very recently. We ventured a few miles inland, but nothing changed. We have no explanation, but we will carry on with what we set out to do. We have selected a new site, it has everything we require.

Most of Lord Corwyn’s following notes concern themselves with establishing the settlement. Two weeks later he remarks, in hurried script:

The second fleet was not to arrive for months, yet today we sighted sails on the horizon. Nine ships, and all crowded, made landfall nearby. I met with their commander, one Sebastien of Orolai. The ships’ crews and passengers were a mess – wretched, dirty souls. of Orolai told me that a searing fire had consumed much of the Kingdom, and that the small fleet consisted of vessels commandeered in Westhaven. They first sailed along the coast, but found no port city not in flames or already destroyed. Not knowing where else to go, they set sail across the ocean, having been lucky to have a navigator who knew about the routes.

I talked to a few of the refugees, and I never got the same story twice. Whatever happened back home – one thing seems certain, we will not get any supplies or help. And now we have hundreds of extra mouths to feed. Let’s hope that wee can forage enough for the winter.

The Lost Colony is a small setting I will be designing over the course of January. The premise is, as you read above, that a fleet set out to establish a colony, but reinforcements never arrived. Instead, it appears that a catastrophe has destroyed their homelands. Overcrowded, low on supplies, and isolated from civilization, the young colony begins to explore the New Lands to build a future for themselves.


Blog Carnival: A New Year, A New World

RPGBlogCarnivalLogoSmallThe start of a new year is traditionally a time that motivate people to change. For some people this means an attempt to lose a bad habit, but true adventurers are in the last stage of preparation for their spring departure – to go over the next hill, across the ocean, down into the depths of subterranean realms, or into deep space, to explore the strange new lands that lie beyond.

This month’s RPG Blog Carnival is about new worlds, about their discovery and about the women, men, and other sentient humanoids who explore and colonize them. Do you run an exploration-centric campaign? Maybe a hexcrawl in a fantasy world, or about setting up a colony on an alien planet? Share your methods – what aspects do you emphasize, and how do you handle them? How do you create a sense of wonder, and maintain it? What strange lands are your characters exploring? What equipment are they using? What vehicles or other means of transportation – a wagon train, flotilla of barques, or slower-than-light Sleeper Ship? Who are your explorers, what motivates them, and who are their patrons and followers? What equipment helps them? What obstacles lie in their paths?

Share your new lands with us, if you can do so without spoiling them for your party. Show off your maps and designs. How do you approach setting up your worlds? Share your favorite world-building tips!

The RPGBA Blog Carnival

The Blog Carnival provides a monthly topic to inspire RPG bloggers to post about. December’s topic was “With A Twist”, check out the round-up post; and a full archive of topics is available if you’d like to see what was done in the past.

To participate, you simply post about the topic in any shape, way or form and post a link to your article as a comment to this introduction post. At the end of the month I’ll post a round-up with links to every post so readers have one central place to look up everything.

Enjoy… and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Update, February 1st: The Roundup has been posted.